What Counts as Data?

I’ve never felt the need to “question” what counts as data. In the humanities, specifically in my field of writing and composition studies data can be the people involved in an ethnographic study, objects or images used for analysis, and even memes, gifs, and tweets. Data for many, however equate to numbers, graphs, and charts with specific quantifiable points that are needed to count as evidence for a particular study. And yes, that too can be data, but datasets are discussed in a variety of ways depending on your discipline and evidence is not the same for every researcher. In the article “Humanities Data: A Necessary Contradiction” Miriam Posner expands on this discussion and sheds light on the differences humanists have when describing data to scientists or those in social science fields. One of the points that appealed to me in her article was when she brought up how humanist will sometimes have a visualization of their research, and when asked to show forth the supporting data points, they are stumped. But why? As she says, “We can know something to be true without being able to point to a dataset, as it’s traditionally understood. ” And this- I get. In rhetorical studies, “truth” in itself is a complex term that has been debated for centuries since the days of Gorgias, Aristotle, and Socrates.  For those in the humanities, sometimes, the data is the narratives collected that have been coded or organized in a particular way.  Or in photographs and architectures dispelling hidden truths on social injustices in society. They may not have numerical datasets, but the data is there.

I believe there is a shift happening even in the humanities – especially in rhetoric and writing studies. Posner points to this while saying, ” If you can analyze something computationally, I think it’s going to be really hard to tell people that they shouldn’t.” which leads to my next discussion point. The role of digital technologies is vastly changing how research is done and collected in writing studies. Although scholars at the intersection of technical communication may have already been engaging computational data, I foresee more scholars will discover how there work can reach a greater audience and show forth evidence in new ways by use of technologies the digital humanities offers.

Thinking about my own work, I hope to use digital tools to unpack the ways writing happens in online spaces through images, technology, and social media. As I work on projects this semester, even my own understanding of data has slightly shifted. Not in what is collected, (its not all about numbers) but more importantly, how I can better interrogate my research findings by expanding the medium I choose to analyze, code, and distribute.


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